Philadelphia, PA – 1960s-1970s
Growing up in the suburbs in Philly was great. We lived in a pleasant, quiet neighborhood. It looked like a snapshot from nostalgic America back then. All of the dads headed out in the morning in their cars to their jobs and the moms stayed home and took care of the house and kids.
Breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Sure, lunch usually consisted of a sandwich on white bread with some potato chips and a drink, and dinner was a protein, a vegetable, and a carb. You got a couple of cookies for dessert and a glass of milk.
All good, but breakfast was the most fun meal of the day. That’s because back then, we had so many cool cereals to pick from. Many of them tasted the same and were just manufactured into different shapes and brands. But they had such great personalities. No other food in your life as a kid had funny characters and mascots like breakfast cereals did. You also never got a prize in a bag of peas or a can of baked beans.
I used to love going to the supermarket with my mom. She would be off somewhere in the store pushing the cart and collecting items from the handwritten list she’d made at home. I would be standing in the cereal aisle for the entire hour. Time moves slowly when you’re a kid, and normally doing errands with your parents was boring. Unless there was the promise of some treat at the end of the trip for good behavior, it was a drag.
But looking at all of the cereals in the aisle made the trip worthwhile. So many cool cereals to choose from. Most of our moms worked on a pretty strict food budget. They had to think of the five people at home and how to make the food money go the farthest.
But as a kid, you have no concept of money because you simply don’t have any, nor the skills to earn any of it for yourself. (Unless you had a paper route, then you were an earner!)
I would stand in that aisle and read all of the boxes carefully. Never worry about any nutritional value or cost. The big questions in my mind were always the same. What kind of prize is the best out of all of these cereals? How many box tops do I need to send away to get an even better free prize?
Before I begin, remember Tang? That weird orange drink that the astronauts drank on the Apollo spacecraft? I tasted it as a kid, and it reminds me of the flavor of today’s Sunny D. We never had Tang as a kid. My mom would buy these rolls of frozen orange juice concentrate in bulk. I remember her mixing it up in the kitchen. Chopping through the slushy mess until it became orange juice. She was always nice enough to strain the pulp out of mine. I thought pulp was gross. It always felt weird in my mouth. Like I was drinking something that had some weird stuff in it that shouldn’t be there.
I write these nostalgic pieces and I really enjoy it, but sometimes I like the reader to come away from it having learned something.
Do you know why kids like candy and sugary cereal? Why do we crave sugar in any form as a kid? The reason goes back millions of years to the origins and development of our species.
What’s usually the first thing a baby does when you hand it something. Yep. Right in the mouth. Why? Because we’re predisposed to test objects we find as babies to see if they are a potential food source. That’s how we learn what we can and can’t eat to survive. Over thousands of years of evolution, babies developed a taste for sweets.
Why? Because most things that are sweet are not poisonous. That’s why little children like sweets. They won’t die if they put it in their mouth like everything else. So the next time you reach for that Kit Kat, you’re just doing what your ancestors knew was right.
Let’s talk healthy first. I remember my dad never agreed with us chowing down on bowls of sugary cereal every day. “It’s not good for your teeth!” “It’s a bunch of sugary crap that has no nutritional value!” “It’s junk!”
All the while he was chowing down on fried eggs, and greasy bacon every morning. Cholesterol and fat city, dad!
He once had the idea that we should all try cream of wheat instead of eating sugary cereals every day. We all tried it one morning on a weekend. It was horrible. We’ve already been eating the crunchy, sugary deliciousness of store-bought fun cereals. Why would we ever want to eat this swill? A big warm bowl of gruel? What sort of medieval torture is this? Gross! No, thank you.
I will say this. My mom was awesome. Every morning for 20 years I would roll downstairs and have a seat at the table. I ate a bowl of cereal while intently reading the back of the box. Next, 2 pieces of bacon, a slice of buttery toast, and a glass of orange juice.
remember waking up in your bed, and you could smell the bacon cooking downstairs? there’s nothing like that in the world. Why does bacon crackle and sizzle when you fry it in a pan? Yes, because it sounds like applause. Bacon has rightfully earned that ovation!
My daughter is Vegan, and I feel sad for her as I write these words.
i could have drunk more than the small 6oz glass of orange juice each morning but you simply don’t need that much juice to get your daily dose of vitamin C. “It’s full of sugar and citric acid! It’s going to irritate your stomach.” Yes… dad again.
But it was a balanced breakfast. Oats, protein, carbs, and vitamin C. Sounds good to me. I think that’s why I love breakfast so much even today. Did you ever go into a 24-hour diner and have breakfast for dinner? Brilliant!
Oh, and when my dad brought home some donuts from the bakery? Cream-filled powdered donuts? My favorite! Good bagels? yes, please! A well-made bagel doesn’t even need anything on it to be awesome.
But I digress…
Let’s talk about some of these breakfast cereals we had as kids.
I’m just going to cruise over the boring adult cereals and get to the fun stuff, but they’re worth mentioning.
- Cream of Wheat – Awful
- Wheaties – Popular with the athletic sports set
- Shredded Wheat – Parent breakfast food. I’m assuming dad needs a bit more fiber
- Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat – Let’s make the same thing smaller so they can shovel more of our product into their gaping maws.
- Rice Chex & Wheat Chex – Looked like something you dumped into at a party to snack on. (But I always wondered how they made those little ventilated squares)
- Corn Flakes – No taste. Gets instantly soggy, and is really Frosted Flakes that have been stripped of their sugary deliciousness. So sad.
- Special K. – Also crap. No, thank you. As bad as Corn Flakes. There’s a reason we called that one girl, Special K who rode the short bus to that ‘other school’.
- Product 19 – Did anybody even buy this cereal that sounds like a failed experiment?
- Rainin Bran – What’s Bran? No, mom, I don’t want to eat raisins as a snack and especially not in my cereal. Just chewy grossness.
- Life – Is this boring cereal what adult life will eventually become for me? Probably. But, no.
- Grape-Nuts– No one believes anything Wilfred Brimley is saying about this cereal. As Seinfeld says, No Grapes. No Nuts. What’s the deal?
- Total – I don’t know or care. Totally boring, okay?
- Cheerios – Okay… these are good and I still eat them when I get the munchies if you get what I mean.
Remember those variety packs of cereal they used to make? I think they still make them today. But back then they looked cool because they were tiny replicas of the real cereal boxes. I once asked my mom what these little boxes had an I-shaped perforation along the face of each box. She told me, that if you opened it that way and tore open the bag inside, you could pour milk in there and the box would serve as an on-the-go bowl of cereal. I never did that but thought it was an innovative idea. But I thought, what if I went through all of that and then realized I had forgotten to bring a spoon with me?
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2. We’ll talk about the fun cereals!
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